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Mature eagle flies free

One of the nation’s symbols is healthy again. Friday, veterinarians and staff from Wildlife Care Center released a bald eagle at Mount Erie on Fidalgo Island.

The eagle stalked around on rocks for a few minutes before flapping off into trees.

The bird’s second flight was longer and smoother.

“That’s what I wanted to see,” Dr. Megan Strahler said. She is a veterinarian at Best Friends’ Animal Clinic which staffs Wildlife Care Center.

Strahler rehabilitates almost all of the birds brought in to the clinic’s rehabilitation center. The eagle had been taking short training flights while attached to a long tether but seeing him take long, smooth wingbeats assured Strahler this bird’s muscle strength had returned.

Seven weeks ago, a hiker reported finding the bird lying on its back in briers, unable to move.

It was an easy capture for clinic staff. They tossed a heavy blanket over the bird and placed it in a carrier.

The eagle’s muscles were too weak for it to struggle. Lead levels in its blood were so high the bird was poisoned.

It had to be something he ate.

“Just one lead pellet from a shotgun can kill a bald eagle,” said Bud Anderson of Falcon Research Center in Bow.

Birds of prey tear meat into small bits and “cast” or vomit up bones, fur and other indigestibles. But if a pellet isn’t eliminated it leaches heavy metal into the bird.

Lead shot has been outlawed nationwide but plenty of pellets remain. Ducks and other waterfowl that scoop up mud and filter it for food consume pellets. Fish, an eagle’s main diet, may identify a lead pellet as food. The eagle could have gotten lead poisoning from its prey.

The bird’s talons were clenched all the time, a sure sign of lead toxicity, Strahler said.

No matter how the eagle ingested lead, it was one sick bird.

In later stages of lead poisoning in eagles, the feet may turn in and grasp each other.

“It looks like the eagle is holding hands,” Strahler said.

This bird wasn’t clasping talons, yet. Strahler had to manipulate its feet many times to get the muscles to release.

The bird’s blood was tested weekly. It received injections of calcium EDTA to remove the lead and Vitamin C to help bind the lead with the calcium so the lead could be excreted. Vitamin C also counteracts iron deficiency that can be associated with lead poisoning.

Strahler and staff at the clinic said drawing blood from this eagle was fairly easy at first. As the bird regained strength, it began to struggle.

That was the hoped for response.

Strahler said the bird weighed about 10 pounds but was extremely strong.

“It’s amazing to feel the power,” she said after securing the eagle in a carrier for its trip to freedom.

This bird is at least 5 years old, Strahler said. It has the white head and tail and yellow eyes.

White heads and brown eyes typically mark a 4-year-old. Immature eagles goo through various stages of streaked brown plumage. Many immature birds never reach 4 years of age.

Strahler rehabilitates many birds each year but this eagle was special.

“Releasing a healthy adult feels more satisfying than an immature eagle,” she said.

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